Visiting Wat Phu and the Bolaven plateau

Trip Start Apr 12, 2011
Trip End Apr 01, 2012

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  , Champasak,
Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Mr Phao takes us to the main road on a small boat, us includes two other people, everyone's bags and a motorbike. As they say in Cambodia, there is always room for one more – that might apply in Laos as well.  Our next stop is Champasak, a few hours north and onto the other side of the river.  So we’re not entirely surprised when we get chucked off the bus at a deserted town and told to cross the river with the ferry.  Despite our arguments that our ticket says Champasak and we’re definitely not there yet, the driver leaves us on the side of the road.  So we wander down to the water to try and negotiate with someone who has a boat.  We manage to charter a boat to cross the river (only a few hundred meters across) and we start off and then pull up on the shore about 10 metres down the bank.  At this point the boy demands money and we’re about to kick up a fuss (maybe we were already in Champasak ?) when we see what he has spotted.  A couple more Westerners have arrived and he is eager to fill the boat.  So we have now totally overpaid for the boat and the boy is making a great trade.  So we pile on 5 more people, get half way across the river and then turn back as the boy has spotted another bus pull up at the river.  So back to see if he can get anymore passengers.  In this time, the actual ferry has pulled up which would have been a lot cheaper but then where’s the fun in that.  The boy (who knows if it was even his boat) doesn’t manage to pick up any more passengers, maybe because the ferry is in now, and we finally get across the river.  We arrive at the other side, to another empty settlement as it’s siesta time.  We have a wander around, try to ask about getting a tuk tuk to Champasak but these requests are met with laughter.  So we’re beginning to doubt how much we are going to like Laos and it’s people when a guesthouse owner rocks up in his own tuk tuk, speaking English and French, and offering a free lift into town.  Very happy to see him, the five of us jump into the tuk tuk and end up staying at the guesthouse.  Yes we could have looked around but this guy has something we haven’t seen in Laos yet – an interest in working and so deserves the business!

Champasak is a small, sleepy town spread along the Mekong.  I think it’s former glory days were when the royal family had a residence there but that has long been forgotten and the town is left with a half finished palace and some nice but old French colonial buildings.  A quick walk round town show us that there isn’t much buzz to the place and so we won’t be staying long.  Our evening is spent overlooking the river chatting to the other couple that arrived at the same time as us.    

Next day we’re up relatively early to hire bikes and cycle out to a nearby temple.  The bike ride itself is good as we go through nice countryside plus westerners on bikes seem a novelty here (it’s a while since we’ve been a novelty) and we get lots of waves and smiles from the local children.  Not too much remains of the temple itself – we may have been spoilt by the remains of Angkor Wat but Jonny reminds me that some of it was built in the 5th century and so a whole lot older than Angkor Wat.  The views from the hill are impressive and two bus loads of monks arrive at the same time as us which makes the photo taking opportunities more interesting.  We end up talking to one of the monks who explains that they are students travelling from Vientiane – this explains the obsession with taking photos at least as this is more like a school trip to them and a chance to see their country’s sights.

Even with our best intentions, we end up cycling back in the peak heat of the afternoon and so it takes us the rest of the afternoon to recover.  In the evening, one of my friends from work pops up in Champasak – all very random but as we’re travelling north and knew he was travelling south we hoped we would cross paths. So we spend our evening catching up until the restaurant we are in closes up at 9.30pm and chucks us out.  Don’t think there will be much partying in Laos then....

Next day we get the local bus to Pakse, which is not really a bus more like a tuk tuk trailer on the back of the van but it’s only an hour journey and it’s open air at least.  In Pakse we stay at Sabaidy Guesthouse which seems to be a busy place and the nicest we’ve stayed in for the past few days, however we can’t complain about anywhere as we’re down to about $6 a night which is pretty cheap.  There is some confusion at the guesthouse when we arrive, as there is a power cut and the staff aren’t quite sure what to do with themselves as they can’t watch tv.  They settle for talking amongst themselves but it doesn’t seem natural!  There’s not too much to Pakse either, although it is a good bit bigger than anywhere we’ve been for the past few days.  There is a choice of restaurants, plastic chairs set up along the river front for beers and many coffee shops as we’re in the coffee region of Laos, the Bolaven Plateau.  One of the coffee shops in particular, called Bolaven Coffee, provides an interesting story on how the local farmers (with the help of the owner of this business) have switched from making low grade robusta coffee to making high quality Arabica coffee.  They are now part of fair trade agreements and work to having their own land which means they have a sustainable living and look after the land rather than use slash and burn farming techniques.

It’s a pretty tough day today, after trying out a few different coffee shops we go for a Laos traditional massage.  We are led into a room with cubicles separated by curtains (open plan massage rooms seem to be how legitimate massage places keep it that way) and get changed into 'massage appropriate’ clothing i.e. light baggy trousers and shirts.  Our masseuses then begin their work, going for pressure points and lots of stretching using their feet, legs, arms to pull our muscles etc.  I’m not sure I would call it a relaxing hour but it did feel beneficial!  Afterwards we head for drinks on a hotel rooftop bar and then go for an Indian dinner.  They certainly can make naan bread here but the curries do lack spice which is strange as Laos food is spicy – we might give up on Indian food for the rest of our time here.

Next day we are on a tour out to the Bolaven plateau with five other people to see plantations, villages and waterfalls.  First stop is a tea plantation where we get a bit of a tour, tea tasting and to meet the owner who is on the picture of all the Sihouk tea packages.  Next stop is to see a waterfall which we can’t even see the bottom of, think it’s a 200 m drop.  Our guide plays with an usual spider he finds, letting it run all over him.  ‘So it doesn’t bite?’ we ask, ‘yes it bites, but not dangerous, like an ant bite’, don’t think I’ll be let it run over my head then like he does.  We then move on to the coffee plantation for another tour and tasting, they are very proud of their coffee here as we’re told it’s served in restaurants all over Europe so better keep an eye out for it when we’re back.  The next stop had the potential to be the most interesting but circumstances were against us.  We had managed to time our visit to a local tribal village that follow Animist beliefs to coincide with their annual three day festival where they don’t let outsiders in to the village.  Animists believe in spirits within sacred forest areas and so live very traditional lives with strict rules on behaviour so as not to upset the spirits.  And so if we had crossed the lines of the village they would have had to ask the spirits what to do to make it right.  The harshest penalty is to sacrifice a buffalo which poor rural communities cannot afford to do on a regular basis so we stayed clear!

We then stopped off for lunch at a local restaurant where I went for Laap – a traditional Lao dish of minced chicken with lemon juices and herbs along with sticky rice, tasty enough but I won’t be asking what parts of the chicken I ate.....Jonny had a bit safer chicken and noodles.

We then went on to visit another tribe called Katou tribe.  Here the guide explained to us this tribe’s belief which is more or less centred on the making of coffins.  Once a child reaches the age of 15, a coffin was made for the child so that child lives a long life.  And so we can see coffins stacked up underneath the houses of each family.  He also explained that when someone is ill they take the coffin into the house and lay it next to them, this usually has the desired effect of making that person better.  It’s hard to know whether our guide is telling us the truth but we have read that this tribe has strange attitudes to death.  And to be fair our guide did have a lot of interesting things to tell us except by this point we were in the village and there is naked children running around waving and shouting sabaidee and others wanting to play so we lost focus on what the guide was telling us.  One child, knowing he’s being naughty, runs through us shouting pen with his hand out.  The guide’s reaction is why do you need a pen when you’re not old enough to go to school and he runs off.  It’s quite refreshing for a child to not be sent out to ask for money from tourists and he feels he’s chancing his luck even asking for a pen.  We’ve read that we’re not to give anything to the children in Laos as it brings shame on the parents but it would be interesting to see if this belief holds when there are more tourists and so more money floating about the country. 

We then go onto visit the school which this tour helps fund along with several other contributors.  It’s a Saturday and so there are no children there but the owner of the hostel and a group of people are there installing electricity which suggests that some of our money will in fact be donated to the school.  Our final stop in the village is the library which is also funded by donations and our guide takes us to see the casings of bombs dropped in the surrounding area in the so called ‘Secret War’, the US have labelled them ‘US Air Force’ which is helpful for identifying them.  The local people now use the metal from these casings to make machetes, jewellery and lots of other items for sale.

We also visit another couple of waterfalls, one of which is in a strange fake village which is actually just a lot of stalls selling traditional clothing items.  Apparently it’s popular with Thai coach tours....

After a very busy day we opt for some drinks on the plastic stools set up by the riverside and head to a restaurant for some pasta (every time we eat Western food we feel a bit guilty but do need the change every so often).  At least we do experience true Laos culture though, as at 9pm on the dot they start closing up, stacking up chairs and tables and closing shutters.  Our waitress is truly gutted that we made her stay until 9.07 so we could finish our beers before leaving.  They don’t work late here and half the waitresses have left before us but then I suppose they do start early so we’ll let them off.
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